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NCAA College Basketball Begins New Season Amid Pandemic Concerns

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

College basketball begins a new season today that is eight months after basketball abruptly shut down because of the pandemic. The headline event early this year, March Madness, was canceled. The hope here is to get the madness back this season, provided they make it through a regular season, during a winter when cases are surging. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman has been covering this. Hey there, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are the big concerns here?

GOLDMAN: Well, you've got college basketball being an indoor sport and a close-contact sport, and both of those make it higher risk for transmitting the virus. It is also the first major indoor sport to have a season without the protection of a bubble. Now, you'll remember what we saw with indoor pro leagues - the NBA, the WNBA, the National Hockey League - and how well bubbles worked at protecting athletes and team personnel. Now college basketball is trying bubblelike situations. We'll call them controlled environments. They're not as airtight and not as expensive as the pro bubbles, but something that is more protected than normal.

An example is the season-opening tournament at the Mohegan Sun Casino and Arena in Connecticut. It's bringing together a bunch of teams, each with their own hotel floors, and they don't mingle with the public on their way to meetings or to the arena. But still, Steve, most games involving hundreds of Division I college teams will be played the usual way, on home courts. There'll be a lot of travel. And controlling the virus will be a challenge.

INSKEEP: And this is all happening in a moment when the virus is soaring out of control in a way far worse than any earlier period of the pandemic. Is this already affecting games?

GOLDMAN: Right. It is. Bunches of games already have been postponed or canceled. I counted more than 20 men's Division I games scheduled for today - they were called off - involving top-ranked teams like Baylor and Duke and Tennessee on the women's side. Eighteen games were called off today. UConn, the most prominent women's program, has suspended activities for at least two weeks. And lots of players and prominent coaches have tested positive - coaches like Michigan State's Tom Izzo, Tennessee's Rick Barnes, Baylor's Scott Drew.

INSKEEP: And this is all before they've played a game. So how are they going to improvise their way through this season?

GOLDMAN: Well, you know, it's going to be a roller coaster season. It's certain to be that. There are going to be ongoing postponements and positive cases, much like college football, even the NFL - two nonbubble major sports getting beaten up at times by the virus. But the optimists will note those two are still going on. And also, college basketball is aiming to finish its season in the spring, and we're being told a pandemic could ease by then, helped by vaccines.

INSKEEP: Could ease by then. So people are already talking about how to pull off March Madness, then.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, they are. You know, that's the carrot the NCAA dangled last week. The NCAA announced it'll be holding its men's March Madness tournament in one location - probably Indianapolis - instead of spreading it out all over the country. But just the talk of a finish line is pushing the whole endeavor forward. And certainly, Steve, the NCAA has to have that finish line. Last year's cancelled tournaments cost hundreds of millions in lost revenue. March Madness is the big moneymaker, and the NCAA would be hugely damaged if a second straight tournament were canceled.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Goldman. Thanks.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAMU THE FUDGEMUNK'S "THIS ADVICE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.